2014-04-22 12:12 - Authors and Readers Ė Friends or Foes?

This post was created as part of the Expiration Day launch activity, and was first published at nerdophiles.com

As a new author, I still read my reviews avidly. I was a bit slow to realise Expiration Day had a presence on Goodreads, so by the time I joined Goodreads, I already had half a dozen reviews up there - some good, some bad. So I never experienced the anguish of waiting for my first review, though I can imagine what it might feel like. Nevertheless, I donít truly appreciate the desperation that might afflict a lone author, trying to get their self-published novel noticed, and the temptation to Ďseed the soilí a little bit, with a self-penned review.

Goodreads advises its authors to steer clear of interacting with reviewers, even to thank them. That feels to me like Iím being really aloof, and early on, I once did ask a reviewer to mark her review as containing spoilers. No response.

In hindsight, I may have had a lucky escape there, because Iíve seen that reviewers can get really heated about being told what they can and canít write in a review. On the whole, I can sympathise with that attitude Ė after all, the principle of free speech is dear to authors.

Of course, with freedom comes a matching responsibility to use that freedom wisely, and not every writer (under which umbrella I place both authors and reviewers) wields the responsibility as wisely as we might wish. Thatís democracy, though, where the wise and the foolish both have a public voice, if they desire. The only sanction we should apply to fools is to ignore them.

Right now, I perceive that free and rational discussion between author and reviewer has been poisoned by groups of Badly Behaved Authors (BBAs), and groups of Review Trolls, speaking freely, but not responsibly. At the moment, the review boards on Amazon, Goodreads and elsewhere are apparently awash with sock-puppetry, bullying and other forms of trollish behaviour.

Thatís a real shame, because itís breaking the trust that should exist between authors and readers. Iíve come to writing from the world of business, where Iím encouraged to listen to criticism, but also to engage with the critic to really understand the underlying issues. That dialogue doesnít exist Ė and perhaps it is the anonymity of the internet thatís to blame, but I donít think forcing reviewers to identify themselves is the solution.

As a computer scientist, with some appreciation of what can be done with Big Data, I suspect that several remedies may soon emerge. Sock-puppetry could be spotted by analysis of device IDs, analysis of vocabulary choices and analysis of rating distribution. Likewise, trollishness.

So if you see high but roughly similar numbers of 3-, 4- and 5-star reviews, and a handful of 1- and 2-stars, you can deduce that the book is probably well-written, probably doesnít suit everybody (what book does?), but a few people really didnít get it. On the other hand, a book with extreme ratings (mostly 1- and 5-star reviews) is probably the target of either BBA sock-puppetry or trolling, or both.

The nature of the internet is that a review site that gets this right will be trusted by reviewers and authors alike, for their own different reasons, though publishers and booksellers will only be convinced if both authors and reviewers desert the failing sites in sufficient numbers.

The downside is that if you can analyse the reviewers well enough to identify the sock-puppets and the trolls, then you can also identify the rest of us. Who do you trust to behave responsibly with that kind of information? The NSA? Google? Amazon? And even if you trust them, what if their data leaks? And thatís a solution worse than the free speech problem weíre trying to solve.

No thanks.

So for me, I will step carefully. I will look carefully at reviewersí behaviour before interacting with them. I keep an open contact address on my website, though, because I donít want to live aloof from readers. I look forward to interacting with you.

page last updated Tue Apr 22 12:12:01 UTC+0100 2014